Suicide squad kills at least 30 in Pakistan

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — A suicide squad using guns, grenades and a van packed with explosives targeted police and Pakistan’s intelligence agency Wednesday, killing at least 30 and wounding at least 250 in an assault seen as revenge for the month-old army campaign against the Taliban in the Swat Valley.

The midmorning blast on a crowded street damaged an area nearly as big as a city block, mangling cars, spraying bricks in all directions and leaving behind a swimming pool-size crater. Most of the dead and injured were civilians.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said militants were striking out because they were losing the fight with government forces battling to uproot extremists in the valley and the tribal areas in the northwest near Afghanistan.

A group calling itself Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab claimed responsibility for the bombing in a Turkish-language communique posted on Turkish jihadist Web sites Wednesday, saying it was related to the fight in Swat, according to SITE Intelligence Group. The claim could not be verified and the group’s relationship to the Taliban was unclear.

Washington and other Western allies back the Swat campaign and are watching closely, seeing it as a test of the government’s resolve to combat the spread of extremism in Pakistan.

The attack in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, was far from the restive Afghan border region where the Taliban have established strongholds from which officials say they have launched attacks on Western forces in Afghanistan.

It was the third deadly assault since March in Lahore, the intellectual and cultural heart of the Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Before March, it had largely escaped the violence that has plagued many parts of the country.

Officials said three suspects had been detained.

Police and government officials described a coordinated assault on a compound that housed several government buildings, including a Punjab provincial government office, a police emergency call center and buildings housing the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.

A white van pulled up in a narrow street separating the police and ISI buildings, police officer Sohail Sakheera told The Associated Press. Two gunmen stepped out from either side of the van, took cover behind concrete barriers protecting the buildings and opened fire, one on the ISI building, the other at the police building. A grenade was lobbed at the ISI building, he said.

A driver remained in the van.

Security guards returned fire, and the fighting lasted several minutes, until one of the attackers was hit by ISI sharpshooters. Then a huge explosion erupted as the bomb was detonated.

The police building collapsed, crushing some officers and trapping others. Walls were sheared off the ISI building.

A crater several yards in diameter and several feet deep marked the spot of the blast, which provincial government official Sajjad Bhutta said was caused by 220 pounds of explosive.

Raja Riaz, a senior provincial government minister, told reporters about 30 people were killed and at least 250 wounded. Fifteen police and several intelligence agents were among the dead, officials said.